The West Mims fire broke containment Sunday afternoon and raced south, prompting Charlton County to urge everyone living within a three-mile radius of the crossroads of Georgia 121 and 94 in St. George to evacuate.
Charlton County already had ordered schools closed Monday before northwest winds pushed the fire across containment lines on the southern edge of a large rectangle the fire had burned Saturday. Also, a shelter Charlton County Emergency Management had opened at an elementary school near Folkston was relocated to the Camden County Recreation Center in Kingsland.
Fire information officer Joe Zwierzchowski said the fire was at least two miles west of St. George, advancing steadily south toward Georgia 94, which already was closed west to the state line.
“This is a tough one,” he said.
As crews worked hard to stop the fire, a tractor plow was overrun by fire about 4 p.m. on the south edge of the fire north of Georgia 94 near Boggy Road, the Southern Red Team said.
The track tractor became “high centered” on a stump and became disabled, but the operator escaped injury and walked safely to Georgia 94, the team said.
The operator put out a distress call and then someone said there was fire all around him, said Joe Hopkins, president of Toledo Manufacturing, which owns thousands of acres of timber in the area.
Hopkins said it was a half-hour before anyone knew the operator was safe.
The fire was pushed by northwest winds that had not been as strong as the 25-mph gusts that were expected.
The continued dry conditions, however, meant the fire didn’t need a lot of wind to advance, said Susan Heisey, supervisory ranger of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
The relative humidity was forecast to drop to around 25 percent in the afternoon.
“Anything below 30 percent is considered extreme,” Heisey said.
Those conditions meant the fire could move quickly and that prompted officials to expand on precautions. St. George Elementary is being used as a staging area for fire crews, and the road closures would inhibit the safe operation of buses, the board of education said.
Before the three-mile radius for an evacuation was put in place to include areas south of Georgia 94, the evacuation already had been expanded Sunday morning to include the east side of Georgia 121 four miles north of the crossroads. Previously, only residents in an area to the west of Georgia 121 and north of Georgia 94 had been urged to pack up and leave.
A fire behavior analyst warned the fire could expand far ahead of fire breaks because of dry conditions.
“Anything that can burn will burn if a hot ember falls. Spotting to a half-mile and runs of a mile or more per hour are possible today,” the analyst said in a morning update from the Southern Red Team.
The fire had broken containment Friday and, in a 26-hour period, burned an 11,000-acre rectangle, most of it private timber land, outside the southeast corner of the refuge.
Saturday night, the fire was estimated to have burned nearly 139,000 acres, but the size of the fire was dropped to just under 130,000 acres Sunday morning.
Fire analysts said that moisture in available fuels was so low that the “probability of ignition is in the 87 percentile,” the update said. That means that 87 percent of live embers that settle on dry fuel could start a new fire, the update said.
The fire was again likely to send out live embers, as it did Saturday, with winds shifting to the northwest and gusting to 20 mph with the approach of another dry cold front.
After getting a break around the fire Saturday, crews continued to work into the night to strengthen it and mop up.
There are now 535 personnel assigned the to fire, a high since lightning triggered it April 6, and, “There’re more coming,” Zwierzchowski said.
The plan was to have eight heavy helicopters and three heavy tanker planes dropping water and retardant on the fire in the Southeast corner. There are 10 helicopters, 55 wildland fire engines, four bulldozers and two 20-member hot shot crews working the fire overall.
The Georgia Forestry Commission team managing the fire through its first three weeks had a ceiling of 500 personnel as a Type 2 incident, but the incident has been upgraded to Type 1, and the new management team can double the number of personnel and exceed that number if necessary.
Georgia 121 remains closed from just south of Folkston to St. George while Georgia 94 remains closed from St. George west to the Florida line.
Terry Dickson: (912) 264-0405